Maine Ski Resort Upgrades Chairlifts After Accidents

A Maine ski resort responsible for two chairlift mechanical failures that led to injuries in the past five years is working to prevent any further accidents, reports the Claim Journal. Sugarloaf is spending $1.5 million to make improvements after a malfunctioning chairlift moved in reverse last March, injuring seven skiers.

Workers are replacing the drivetrain on the King Pine chairlift and have replaced the gearbox on the nearby Timberline lift. They also upgraded the brakes on seven other lifts to prevent rollbacks. Another aging lift was removed altogether.

“We’re making these lifts as safe as possible with the most modern standards and components,” said Rich “Crusher” Wilkinson, vice president of mountain operations. “We don’t want to have any more lift incidents here.”

Nationwide, such incidents are rare. Skiers are far more likely to be hurt driving to the resort or skiing than riding on lifts, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

There have been only six mechanical failures resulting in injuries in the past 15 years in the U.S., and the last fatality linked to a mechanical problem was in 1993 in California, officials say.

At Sugarloaf, investigators determined the mechanical failure on the 27-year-old King Pine was caused by a broken drive shaft in a gearbox that allowed the lift to move backward. A faulty switch prevented an anti-rollback system from locking the lift in place, and the emergency braking system subsequently failed to automatically activate.

The Borvig-manufactured lift traveled about 400 feet in reverse, prompting some skiers to jump out, before it stopped three to five seconds later. Three of the seven injured skiers were taken to a hospital.

Five years earlier, high wind contributed to another lift accident in which some chairs on Sugarloaf’s Spillway East plummeted 25 to 30 feet onto the snow below, injuring eight skiers and trapping others in the air for more than an hour. That 35-year-old lift was replaced entirely.

All claims from the 2010 accident have been settled, and there have been no new claims from the March incident, said a Sugarloaf spokesperson.

Both of Sugarloaf’s accidents involved older lifts that are part of an aging infrastructure at many resorts. Nationwide, most lifts were installed during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and hundreds of old lifts remain in service, industry officials say.

After the March accident, Partek Ski Lifts, which provides technical support for Borvig lifts like the one that failed, warned operators of about 170 similar Borvig and Partek lifts to replace switches. Sugarloaf also shut down a similar lift, Timberline, which served the mountain’s summit.

In addition to regular maintenance, workers drained the oil from the gear boxes on all of the lifts and used a scope to examine components for excessive wear. “We’re trying to be proactive here, to get out in front of it,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve done all we can. We’ve been very aggressive at upgrading these lifts and we have the utmost confidence in them.”

Each state regulates the maintenance and safety of ski lift operations.

The Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety has not released its final report on their investigation, but it issued a series of recommendations to ski resorts with similar lifts, said spokesman Doug Dunbar. Maine ski resorts have a good track record, and there has never been a chairlift fatality caused by a mechanical problem in Maine. “While any accident is too many, chairlift travel remains very safe in Maine and throughout the U.S.,” he said.